Connectivity and Low Resource Environments

On September 24th, 2003, DOT-COM and InterAction co-hosted the second session in its speaker series on ICTs and Development, on Connectivity and Low Resource Environments: DOT-COM. Over 80 participants attended the session held at AED's conference center in Washington, DC.

Following this session, an online discussion will be held starting October 27 - November 21st on the GKD Discussion list.

Presentations were given by:

Dipak Basu: NetHope: Applying the Internet for Lasting Change
Summary: Dipak Basu described NetHope, the IT solutions consortium of international NGOs who work in the poorest regions of the world, and its experience in finding connectivity solutions for development professionals in such areas as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Highlights: We started NetHope with the vision that implementing IT in rural areas is difficult. Members of NetHope are actively helping developing countries to benefit from IT in their programs, e.g., education, environment, health, and economy.

NetHope is a consortium of NGOs that are engaged in international development and relief operations, committed to using IT for improved service to beneficiaries, and are proactively influencing in-country trade policy. Members include Save the Children, Winrock, MercyCorps, Catholic Relief, World Vision, CARE, Children International, Plan, and Oxfam. As a coalition, we leverage our access to funding, knowledge sharing, resources, and solutions. Additional benefits of membership include advantages of buying and deployment as a consortium, access to a pool of technical and project management resources for difficult situations, and access to corporate sponsors.
  • Affordable and reliable telecom infrastructure through innovative networking solutions
  • Shared networking hardware, software applications, and knowledge and experiences
  • Development of in-country capability
  • Solutions to geo-political barriers
  • Unified appeal to donors
Their business plan includes new locations, shared applications, fundraising, knowledge management. Accomplishments to date include:
  • 1-year pilot: connected 21 locations in 5 countries - completed, satellite locations
  • IT telephony trial: 36 phones, IP phones, free telephone calls, good member response
  • Iraq project: satellite phones in secure areas, RBGAN
  • Next locations / targeted locations: East/West Africa, Middle East, South Asia, East Asia
In sum, NetHope uses the Internet to bring improved services for healthcare, education, economic opportunities and disaster management in developing countries. They provide innovative technologies and knowledge sharing to nonprofit organizations and create and serve a new telecom market in an emerging geography.

A full copy of his presentation, "NetHope: Applying the Internet for Lasting Change" can be downloaded by clicking the following link. Nethope.pps MS PPT 991K.

Robert Bortner, Greenstar Foundation: Using ICT in a Low Resource Environment: so what good is ICT?
Summary: Robert Bortner described the Greenstar model of using solar powered community centers in the most rural of areas to promote cultural and economic development. Through a combination of solar panels, VSATs, spread-spectrum digital radio, or conventional cellular connection, these centers provide their communities with electricity, water purification, communications, education, and support for telemedicine and local employment.

Highlights: Greenstar builds solar-powered telecenters in deep rural areas and then helps connect the community with other tools, whether it be actual hardware like water purification, irrigation equipment or programs and partners. One primary tool which Greenstar has developed and uses in most projects is the Greenstar Digital Culture Program.

What Greenstar does, however, is not really about technology and connectivity. It's not about this gap or that gap. What they do is help economically poor people in remote areas get to the stage where they can even understand what "Digital Divide" means. If you were to ask people who make less then $1/day or even $5/day what the term "digital divide" means, it would not make any make sense to most of them. Once they have a bit of electricity, though, and start using it for things they find useful, only then will they even understand of what they are missing. They will be at the base of a metaphorical ladder.

It is important to understand that we cannot lift them up this ladder. We are all at the bottom of the same ladder and although we have some ideas on how to climb it, we cannot do it for them. We cannot run to the top of ladder and reach down, either. We have to climb it together.

The one foundational tool that enables other tools such as computers, better education, improved healthcare, etc. is electricity, and in remote locations Greenstar has been using solar power. A critical element of Greenstar's philosophy is providing tools to help the community achieve independence so they can pursue their own economic, social and environmental goals.

Examples of tools:
  • Solar cookers and sun ovens
  • Vaccine coolers and water purifiers
  • Software for education and health
  • Electronics such as digital cameras, sound recorders, PCs, windup radios
  • Water pumps, typically provided as part of an overall microenterprise development project
  • Partner program tools, such as roaming telecenter on bike project in India
The Greenstar Digital Culture Program works to commercialize cultural assets. Greenstar works closely with communities to record traditional music, dance, graphic art, and storytelling, to produce and commercialize the material, and to setup websites and other tools so the community can publicize their materials to the outside world. Communities setup businesses and participate in the production and sale of their products. The funds generated by sales are used by the community to help fund their own development objectives.

Greenstar uses solar power because it is renewable and clean, has low maintenance on a day-to-day basis, has low variable costs, and is the most economically viable well-proven renewable technology for small scale needs such as community centers. They use photo-voltaic systems in all their installations, with 600w in Ghana to 2-4 KW in West Bank. In terms of equipment, laptops use far less electricity which is important to control the costs of photo-voltaic installations.

Greenstar prefers a dedicated VSAT connection, although these can be expensive. However, in Brazil the cost is now a one-time fee of about $480 and then $130/month. Other options include duplexed cell phones, which have low equipment costs but high usage fees. Another option is hybrid downloading using Worldspace Radio service and then some sort of upload capability such as cell phones.

A full copy of his presentation, "Using ICT in a Low Resource Environment: so what good is ICT?" can be downloaded by clicking the following link. Greenstar.pps MS PPT 6MB.

George Scharffenberger, Voxiva
Summary: George Scharffenberger described a number of best practices in approaching connectivity and ICT issues in developing countries. He reviewed the integrated technology model that Voxiva uses, including a combination of telephones and the Internet for data transmission of disease surveillance information.

Highlights: The fundamental question is, connectivity for what? Who is on info highway, where do they want to go? We don't want to leave behind next generation of rusted tractors; therefore we should be informed when transferring tech ideas to the third world. We need to spend time thinking about who will travel the information highway and listening to where they want to go. If we don't, we may be missing opportunities for real impact and setting our partners up for failure.

But ignoring connectivity equally leads to failure. Keep in mind that what works in developed world doesn't always work in developing world. Also, who pays the maintenance costs? We also need to use tools appropriate for conditions and skillsets, e.g., VSAT vs. regional BGAN in Iraq.

Tech transfer principals:
  • Start with good needs assessments
  • Identify the bottlenecks in information flows
  • Develop applications which end bottlenecks
  • Get good tech: develop associated applications with high short-term value relative to investment
  • Develop applications for customer needs, ensuring they are able and willing to pay
  • Design systems for growth (not of tech today)
  • Anticipate/cultivate surprises
  • Build in redundancy
  • Invest in people/empower those you hope to assist
What is IT at its best?
  • Facilitate ongoing, realtime, multidirectional flows of information and communication among dispersed networks of people of the world
  • Storing, sorting, processing, making available large quantities of complex data/knowledge
  • Improve both speed and quality of info flows
  • Be pragmatic, go with what works, not with what dazzles
  • Don't favor just one technology
  • Build on what's there
  • Don't overlook the basics / obvious
  • Use what's affordable
  • Practice the community approach
  • Trust / use community professionals
About Voxiva
Voxiva is a startup venture focusing on the creative use of information technology to solve critical public health problems in the US and around the world, including disease surveillance systems to identify and assist in rapid response to outbreaks, management and distribution tracking of critical medicines and supplies, and patient monitoring. Their vision was built around solving the problems of those on the periphery and includes the creative marriage of the telephone with the Internet, highlighting the particular strengths of each technology.
  • Use telephone: quasi-ubiquitous, low-cost, easy learning curve, no literacy required
  • Use Internet: cost-effective networking, data collection and viewing from dispersed locations, powerful tools for data analysis and presentation, and speed and transparency.
  • Build on the positive applications of both
  • Improve reach / performance of both
    • Examples:
    • Use card w/toll-free number, input information and report a disease to urban center
    • Information is delivered instantly to minister's desk
    • Helping people who need to respond to information
A full copy of his presentation, "Connectivity in Low Resource Environments" can be downloaded by clicking the following link. voxiva.pps MS PPT 2.99 MB.

Michael Best, Georgia Tech
Summary: Dr. Best described the three keys to connectivity: low-cost technologies (including terrestrial wireless), micro and small enterprises, and a supportive public policy. He outlined the current wireless technology available for local connectivity, described his experience in India using small and medium enterprises to deliver telephony and Internet access to local communities, and addressed the need for supportive public policy to allow these types of interventions to succeed.

Highlights: There is a revolution going on in how one can gain connectivity in rural communities in the developing world. Connectivity is the easiest part - there's a suite of technology and business changes that are producing a revolution.

Key to connectivity: three points
  1. Low cost technologies, especially terrestrial wireless
  2. Micro/small enterprises
  3. Supportive public policy initiatives
Low-cost technologies
There are several low cost technologies for rural connectivity. One would argue that VSAT is no longer good for rural connectivity, as the space satellite is hard to maintain. Terrestrial wireless solutions such as WLAN (wireless local area network) and WMAN (wireless metropolitan area network) have made an impact in this area. (see slides for comparisons between 802.11b and 802.16, as well as vendors corDECT and Canopy).

Dr. Best described on two projects deploying terrestrial technologies. Two years ago, a village area network was deployed in Bohechio, Dominican Republic using 802.11b that resulted in roaming coverage of 1KM radius within village. Another, the SARI project (Sustainable Access in Rural India) of MIT, IIT Madras, Harvard University, iGyan Foundation, and n-Logue Communications, implemented WLL Village tele-kiosks to provide Internet (via WLL/CorDECT), PCs, and application suites to villages, many of which are off the phone grid.

In the SARI project, each kiosk is independently owned and run, with Internet provision at rates that can handle applications such as video chat. This service provides toll quality voice service / simple connectivity to the PSTN and is affordable and robust. The pilot covered all villages in the Madurai District, Tamil Nadu, South India (about 32,000 people) and provided 80 connections in 50 villages (ave. 1000 households per village). With the highest density of rural Internet kiosks connections anywhere, this project enabled a fourth of the population to use the Internet.

2. Micro Business Model
  • Revolution of micro / small business
  • Lower capital costs / recurrent costs
  • Local, small scale providers available, key in cutting costs / increasing access
  • SARI: $68/month, need $2.70/day to break even in business, average revenue is $2.27/day
  • Scaling Results: Terrestrial technologies are cheaper than VSAT, PV Solar Cells, etc.
3. Public Policy Evolution
  • Universal Access Provider license: low entry barriers, support of diverse value-added services, encouragement of micro and small businesses
  • Low entry barriers: every country needs to advocate frequencies to be license exempt; low/reduce operating license; performance guarantees; reduced excise, sales tax, custom and import duties
  • Diverse value-added services: VoIP, public payphone, market set cost-based tariffs
A full copy of his presentation, "Connectivity in Low Resource Environments: Terrestrial Wireless Technologies & Policies" can be downloaded by clicking the following link. MikeB.pps MS PPT 5MB.

Question 1: Job/enterprise creation, is there data tracking for enterprise formed/jobs created as a result of connectivity?

Dipak Basu: job improvement, moving up chain from dialiup to robust technology.
Bob Bortner: creating community enterprises increases wealth of community, helped lots in extremely remote areas where no market access.
Michael Best: data for voice telephony demonstrates consumer surplus, job creation in ICT sector in telephone but less in Internet.

Question 2: How do you transition VSAT to terrestrial wireless system?

Michael Best: DR uses hybrid system. Worry of latency of VSAT when transition. Mali: strong local network connectivity
Bob Bortner: VSAT used only when tech is highly subsidized.
George Scharffenberger: look at application side; see what's really needed.

Question 3: Rule of law area, developments create independent regulatory body, but donor community fails to implement rules/statutes. Attention that WB / USAID pays to developing regulatory capacity in developing world.

George Scharffenberger: suffering from a certain naiveté, difficult to legislate in short run, lack of investment in basic training, enforcement under funded, government becomes interested in stakeholders - conflict of interest.
Dennis Foote: USAID has recognized salience in regulatory issues, dot-com alliance doing what they can; all orgs have a role to play in this.

Post-Event Discussion on Global Knowledge Discussion List

Following the DOT-COM/InterAction Speaker Series: Connectivity in Low Resource Environments event on September 24, 2003, DOT-COM and InterAction are hosting a month long follow-up discussion on GKD, starting October 27, examining the practical approaches to bringing ICT connectivity to poor, rural and other un and under-served communities.

To Join the Discussion

The agenda for this topic (October 27-November 21, 2003) will focus on:
  1. Learning about activities bringing connectivity to un or under-served communities
  2. Examining how much bandwidth is necessary to have an impact, and why
  3. Identifying models that can and should be brought to scale
  4. Exploring what's on the horizon...and where we want to go over the next 3 years
A White Paper citing the cases, projects, experience, success stories, and recommendations presented by discussion members will be widely circulated throughout the development community. We encourage all discussion members to participate and share their experience and knowledge regarding:
  1. Policies, strategies, tools, and partnerships to extend connectivity to un-served communities
  2. Case studies, projects, achievements, challenges and lessons learned
  3. Success stories of efforts that have overcome challenges and effectively expanded connectivity in low-resource environments
To Join the Discussion

DOT-COM/InterAction ICT Speaker Series Background
The DOT-COM/InterAction ICT Speaker Series, funded by USAID (DOT-COM) and the Markle Foundation (InterAction ICT Working Group), is intended to explore ways in which Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) impact development efforts.

The main goals of the speaker series include sharing information about innovative and effective uses of technology in development efforts, building a community around a broad spectrum of information technology interests, and exploring gaps and challenges to effective implementation and use of technologies in our work.

For More Information, Contact:
Barbara Fillip
Evaluation & Communication Specialist, DOT-COM
Academy for Educational Development
Tel: 202 884-8003

Charles Gay
Senior Vice President, Greenstar Foundation
Tel: 805-370-8530

Brian King
ICT Working Group Coordinator, InterAction
Tel: 202 667-8227

Mike Best
, The Media Lab Room
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Tel: 617-253-9783

Related Resource Partners
Click on USAID's logo to visit USAID
Click on Internews Network logo, to visit Internews
Click on Academy for Educational Development (AED) logo to visit AED
Click on Educational Development Center (EDC) logo to visit EDC
Core funding for the DOT-COM Alliance is provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture & Trade, Office of Infrastructure and Engineering (EGAT/OI&E), Office of Education (EGAT/ED), and Office of Women in Development (EGAT/WID), under the terms of Award numbers: GDG-A-00-01-00009-00, dot-GOV; GDG-A-00-01-00014-00, dot-ORG; GDG-A-00-01-00011-00, dot-EDU.
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